The Best Books To Read If You Want To Start Reading Classics But Are Too Intimidated

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So what if it’s not Tuesday, I’m posting anyway! I’ve just spent the past two and a half hours applying for jobs that I’ll never get because all employers see is the word “Subway” on my resume and think that’s all I’m good for. Like I can’t learn to be something else.

I don’t want to talk about it anymore, because it makes me too sad. I can’t even get a response for entry level positions because even they need experience A girl can’t win! Anyway, enough of this.

I saw that this week’s TTT was all about recommending books to people. I know that’s what the lists do a lot of the time anyway, but I thought I would take the time to actually try and break down the wall between many readers and the capital L Literary classics. I don’t know about you, but I was always, always scared to try the classics. I didn’t want to feel stupid or to be bored by a book that everyone else raved about. So I psyched myself out of reading classic novels until about Year Twelve, when I picked up Pride and Prejudice of my own free will (rookie error. Note to self: Jane Austen sucks) and a friend lent me 1984. Once I overcame that first hurdle, it was a lot easier to choose to read the classics. They aren’t as scary as I thought!

If this sounds condescending, I apologise. I just know a lot of people who steer clear of the classics because of their fearsome reputation as being “intellectual”.

  1. Stoner by John Williams
    I would recommend this book to anyone. I would put it on most recommendation lists, but it actually fits on this one. It is a classic from quite a few decades ago.  It’s modern enough for the language to be accessible, but it’s got that classics charm where you imagine everything in sepia tone. Or maybe that’s just me.
    Stoner is a simply story with a complex message about life. And because of its simplicity, it makes a wonderful first classic. Well, not really because the rest of them pale in comparison, but you get me.
  2. Anything with Sherlock Holmes in it, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
    Sherlock Holmes can be read by any age, at any time, and still be entertaining. Conan Doyle was some kind of savant. His storytelling is quintessentially Victorian but without all the unnecessary verbosity. In fact, the stories are incredibly straightforward. Plus, if you’re a Benedict Sherlockian like myself it’s really fun to read stories like A Study in ScarletThe Hound of the Baskervilles, and A Scandal in Bohemia and seeing all of the tiny details that made it into the BBC show but also all of the teensy details that were changed. I would recommend these stories to everyone, much in the same way as Stoner, but for entertainment value rather than mind-blowing, life-changing plot. Plus, you can get the Sherlock Holmes stories with Benedict and Martin on the front, and with forewords written by Moffatt or Gatiss or Freeman or Cumberbatch. What’s not to love?
  3. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
    I had to read this book for uni. I was expecting another Jane Austen monstrosity but Wuthering Heights was actually incredible. It had passion and drama and taboo topics and none of the ridiculous restrained characters that seem to dominate Austen’s stories. These characters are real and flawed and exciting. Although I had to keep putting the book down because the language got too much sometimes, I always picked it back up again. Wuthering Heights is capital L Literature at its finest and has made me want to read everything ever written by the Brontë sisters. And that is quite a feat, for a classic.
  4. 1984 by George Orwell
    This was a fairly intense read that keeps you hooked from that immortal first sentence: “It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”. Modern storytellers could learn thing or two from Orwell’s world-setting from that very first sentence. Already we know that we’re not in our time and there was no need for complicated conversations between characters about history. Orwell lays it all out there, in that first sentence. The ending of this book is unexpected, which is both a good and a bad thing. I will not give it away because it is a brilliant twist. But I loved this book. People do hate it, but I adored it. Except the ending. Once you read it, then you’ll understand.
  5. Dracula by Bram Stoker
    One word: vampires. Ever wondered how people way back in the day viewed vampires? Here’s your chance to find out. Many modern readers find this book boring because vampires are nearly commonplace to us now. But you have to forget that you’re familiar with everything vampiric and try and follow the characters’ journey to the discovery of the existence of these otherworldly, undead creatures. Plus, there are two very different kinds of vampires explored in the novel. One of them is a tad sexist, but you pretty much have to focus on the period in which it was written and ignore the “equality for all!” voice that rages in your head. Dracula would have been terrifying back in the day, and it’s fun to imagine yourself as a Victorian reader, terrified by these unknown creatures being described to you.
  6. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
    I lent this book to a friend of mine years ago and never got it back. To be fair, I have moved around a lot, but I pretty much believe that she loved the book so much that she decided to keep it. In Cold Blood is a true crime story that reads exactly like a crime fiction novel. There are twists and turns and red herrings and villains-who-aren’t-quite-villains (well, they are, but you get to know them and therefore sympathise with them a bit). The only drawback is that Capote was so determined to report the truth and nothing but the truth that a fair few lines of dialogue are repeated verbatim throughout the story. I suppose he wanted to make sure that he couldn’t get sued for defamation, but it did get tedious reading the same thing over and over. It doesn’t happen so often as to make you want to put the book down, but often enough that you can skips whole lines of dialogue and still not miss a single plot point. That being said, the plot grips you from the outset and I absolutely insist that this be one of your first classics!
  7. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
    This is by far one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. You’re never quite sure what is happening, or which genre you’re reading, but you are never ever bored. And that’s one of the biggest risks in reading classics: boredom. Vonnegut keeps you wanting more, even when you’re not entirely sure if you’re reading fact or fiction. This is hailed as a protest piece as it was written about the aftermath of one of the worst bombings during WWII. Which sounds super serious, but Slaughterhouse Five isn’t. Well, it is, but you don’t feel that way as you read it. Which is why it’s a fantastic classic; it simply doesn’t feel like you’re reading the capital L stuff.
  8. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
    This one should be self-explanatory. Dickens is one of the most worshipped Literary authors around, and A Christmas Carol may be one of the most appropriated. You’ve all seen some version of it or another (the worst of which may be The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past starring Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner), so why not have a crack at the original. I read this when I was far too young and it scared me half to death. I should give it another go, but to be honest I’m still a little afraid. The fact that a classic can scare you like that, though, should be reason enough to read it!
  9. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
    I put this book in here because I hated it. I absolutely detested this book. I had to read it for Extension English in high school and couldn’t get over how much I hated Victor Frankenstein. So why is it in this list? Because I wanted to show you that it is possible to have strong opinions about classic literature. Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while may be familiar with my hatred of Great Expectations and may be wondering why I chose not to include that book in this place on my list. It’s simple really: I finished Frankenstein. The only character I actually hated was Victor. The rest of the characters were fairly amazing, especially the monster. And as for the storytelling? There’s a story within  a story within a story. So, even though I’ll never read this book again because I’m constantly rooting for Victor to throw himself into that lake that he’s always going on about, Frankenstein is written so skilfully that I it allowed me to forget my hatred. Whereas nothing Dickens could have done could have made me forget how much I hated Pip and Estella.
  10. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
    Simply because Hamlet is a fantastic character and has some of the most amazing one-liners ever. Sure there’s the whole iffy relationship between Hamlet and his mum, but as a whole the play is incredible. Make sure you get one of those versions that has Shakespeare-to-English translations, or better yet one of the graphic novel versions, because otherwise you may find yourself drowning in a sea of unfamiliar words.

So, dear readers, how many of these books have you read? Do you feel like reading any of them? Have I offended anyone? Or are/were you like me and find/found the classics damn intimidating? Let me know!

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About Bec Graham

Bec Graham, 24, was born on the wrong continent. Everything from her burns-like-paper skin tone to her inability to cope with the slightest hint of a hot day suggests she should have been born under the gloomy skies and mild sun of the UK. She hopes writing will get her to her rightful home one day. Failing that, she scans the skies for a spinning blue police box, hoping to catch a lift back to the motherland.
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8 Responses to The Best Books To Read If You Want To Start Reading Classics But Are Too Intimidated

  1. moosha23 says:

    I really want to read Hamlet (a friend was in a production of it a while back, and the quotes he kept spouting out – he was Claudius – were lovely).
    I know what you mean about first being apprehensive of classics I, too, made the mistake of reading Pride and Prejudice first…and then promptly asked everyone what the fuss was all about? (*barf* chick flicks).
    The Portrait (Picture?) of Dorian Gray was the first classic I actually fell head over heels with and found easy to read!
    Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the only book I’ve read by him but I love it so much – I didn’t know that the man could be such a jovial writer (well…). 1984 was the other one I read (I had to skip a lot because it was hard reading…especially the essays on war, ignorance and slavery) and yes the ending was ridiculous. I just stared at the book with steam coming out of my ears. But when I started reading up on WW2 and the Cold War and so many other things I see just how much of history was in play, and the similarities had me adoring the novel.

    • Bec Graham says:

      I seriously am obsessed with Hamlet. I have a pendant with a quote from Hamlet’s love letter to Ophelia on it, and a tattoo of a sparrow for that soliloquy: “there is special providence in the fall of a sparrow”. Hamlet is incredible! Also, you should check out the movie: Mel Gibson as Hamlet, Glenn Close as his mum, and Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia. OR there’s the Rotal Shakespeare version with DAVID TENNANT as Hamlet 🙂
      Funny you should mention the Picture of Dorian Grey, cos I’m reading it at the moment! Enjoying it so far!

      George Orwell was just amazing. It did get difficult but I loved how he detailed humanity’s future in that way. Taking actual events and going that one step further is how those futuristic novels manage to sound believable! Have you ever read Super Sad True Love Story? Scarily accurate depiction of the not too distant future. Or so the author has you believe!

  2. Deborah says:

    I think I read Hamlet (and 1984) at school over 30yrs ago, but that’s it! *I confess embarrassingly*

  3. bornandread says:

    Totally with you on Slaughterhouse Five – I read it for the first time a couple of weeks ago and was so sad that I had gone so long in my life without reading it. It was so not what I was expecting it to be and I loved it – weird and wonderful!

    • Bec Graham says:

      Once I’d finished reading it, I lent it to both my roommates, one of whom wasn’t a big reader and they both loved it! I love it when that happens.
      They made Slaughterhouse Five into a movie, but I’m too scared to watch it haha

  4. I feel EXACTLY the same way about Wuthering Heights and it’s one of my favourite books! Younger me thought she would never like classics because she didn’t like mopey people sitting round having tea parties and longwinded conversations. It was only when I picked up Wuthering Heights that I realised not all classics were like that!

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